Listen to the 11/5/07 performance of
The Chamber Singers and the AMU Choir singing
Zbojnicki! by Jacek Sykulski

Chamber Singers return from 10-day tour to Poland

The excitement of singing for vocally enthusiastic audiences in a packed concert hall, a large, old village church, and an inner-city high school gymnasium; long conversations with college students from the other side of the world about their lives as students in a revived democratic republic; taking over a local restaurant with a local college choir in a foreign land to celebrate a concert you’ve just finished by singing and laughing the night away.

These were just some of the moments taken home by the twenty-four Haverford and Bryn Mawr students who traveled to Poland from May 16-25, 2005 on a concert and cultural exchange tour sponsored by the Haverford Center for Peace and Global Citizenship and the Louis Green Fund.

While none of the American students could speak Polish, they came prepared to sing in the local language alongside their peers in the Adam Mickiewicz University Academic Choir in Poznan. While this university-wide select choir has toured the world and hosted a number of other international choirs itself, their director, Jacek Sykulski noted that the Haverford/Bryn Mawr choir was the first to visit with Polish songs in their repertoire. Widely known in Poland for his adept arrangements of national folk songs, Sykulski not only directed the combined choirs in two of his arrangements of high-energy dance songs, but he honored the American students’ request to conduct them separately in the song Góralu, czy ci nie zal.

It soon became readily apparent to the students in this and subsequent concerts that this was a melody very well known by all Poles, who sang along enthusiastically on the refrain in every performance. Sophomore Hannah Upp reflected, “I will especially remember singing Góralu – the people’s faces when we sang a piece that meant so much to them and especially when they sang with us – it was amazing that even though we didn’t know each other, we knew the same song and could share an experience in tandem. The audiences always seemed so genuinely touched that we had bothered to learn a Polish song and seeing people respond so emotionally prompted our own tears.”

The Haverford/Bryn Mawr choir also shared some of their music with the Polish choir, singing a full-throated rendition of Moses Hogan’s spiritual Elijah rock! with the combined choirs directed by Haverford Associate Professor of Music Thomas Lloyd along with a selection of other African-American spirituals and an original work by Lloyd written as a reflection on the current state of American ideals. The choir also brought repertoire reflective of the varied backgrounds of its students, including a piece in the Ebe language, “Dumedefo!” from Ghana (the home of baritone Joel Kwabi HC ’07) and a Hebrew folk song “Y’susum midbar,” a prayer for peace that offered a way to connect to the tragic history of the Polish Jews.

But music was also the catalyst for discussions of a wide range of extra-musical issues. In addition to making all the arrangements for three public concerts, Haverford Assistant Professor of Sociology Suava Zbierski-Salameh made arrangements for extended discussions with contacts within the university and city government of Poznan where she herself had grown up and attended college. Explaining why Poznan was such a good destination for a group of American students, Prof. Zbierski-Salameh said “Poznan is a strong academic city, with 130,000 students in 22 universities out of a population of 700,000. Poznan is also capital of one of the most progressive provinces in Poland, where the post-socialist democratization processes are very apparent, especially in the universities, which are in a period of rapid expansion.” Poznan also happens to be a city well known for its musical traditions. Jacek Sykulski has taken his university choir around the world (discussions about a 2006 visit to Haverford are in the works), and the city also boasts a conservatory of music and two prominent boys choirs. Every five years Poznan hosts one of the top violin events in the world, the Wieniawski Competition.

Informal discussions were held with groups of students from the sociology department of Adam Mickiewicz University and with a group of students from a new private university recently established in Poznan. Following these discussions, many of the students offered to show the Haverford and Bryn Mawr students around the town the same evening, the town being Poznan’s beautifully restored medieval village square, bustling with outdoor restaurants, cafes, shops, and modern clubs. A group of students from an organization called “Young Democrats,” affiliated with one of Poland’s larger political parties, took a large group of students out to a soccer match the next evening, followed by a political rap session at their offices near the university.

The students also were treated to a performance by a university folk-dance group. Impressed by their technique and obvious dedication to Polish traditional culture, many of our students wondered how many Haverford students would be up to the challenge if a similar venture were offered at home! They showed their appreciation at the end by responding to a request to sing one of the spirituals from their program for the small audience of student dancers and their friends. Later on the tour, the American students took time to meet in small groups before a video camera to compare notes on what they had learned from their conversations with Polish students so that something of their experience could be shared with their fellow students after their return.

Older generations of Poles offered a slightly more complex picture of the current environment in the context of it’s turbulent modern history. The students were treated to an hour-long question and answer session with Poznan’s first deputy mayor, who extended a half-hour session to more than an hour, candidly answering questions students posed about the challenges of the current political and economic transition in Poland. Various seasoned tour guides in bus and museum tours during the week also kept referring to the courage of the Polish people in rebuilding Warsaw after the overwhelming destruction of World War II, a part of their history that they clearly feared the newly optimistic younger generation was in danger of forgetting.

The musical performances were clearly the emotional high points of the trip. Three performances in particular were memorable, coming before three very different but substantial (400+) audiences who were much more effusive in expressing their appreciation than a typical American audience. The first was the shared performance with the AMU choir in the university’s hallowed Philharmonic Hall before a distinguished but quite vocal audience of university and city officials. Haverford director Tom Lloyd said “this was acoustically the most perfect hall I have ever performed in: both beautiful detail and warm sound from anywhere in the auditorium – and the students could have gone on singing for each other all night – and they almost did, both in the hall and in the restaurant afterwards!”

Before leaving Poznan, the choir also sang a concert in an old church in the nearby town of Losowo, where concerts are a special event each month. It seemed like everyone in the town, from children to grandparents was there. They were especially encouraging in the choir’s first attempt to sing one of their more difficult Polish songs on their own, and wouldn’t let the choir go without singing their very non-sacred vocal jazz rendition of the Beatles’ Michelle.

On the final day of the tour, the choir visited a public high school in an urban neighborhood of Warsaw. They waited for the student audience to come into a medium-sized gymnasium with paint peeling off the walls and the local tour bus guide muttering under her breath (“I never would have brought you to a place like this!”). They were soon concerned that with the reverberation of the gym’s acoustics and the natural restlessness of a packed high-school audience it might be hard to hear themselves sing, no less be heard by the students. But as soon as they began to sing the spiritual “My Good Lord’s done been here,” the crowd was completely hushed and attentive. They ended up staying for almost two hours, singing their whole program and talking with the Polish students about their impressions of Poland and about life in America.

“There is something about music shared in this way that goes well beyond the talent and achievement orientation of serious music in American culture,” Lloyd reflected afterward. “I think our students are always surprised at how easily interaction comes with foreign students after singing together for even a short time. Singing reminds us of how profoundly alike we are as human beings at the same time as it celebrates our distinctive cultural identities. The Polish people we met have given us memories to last a lifetime!”